Westerlo Planning Board approves cell tower

File photo — Dorothy Verch

High in the sky: A site test using a hydraulic lift was conducted in March to determine the visual impact of a proposed cell tower in Westerlo. Determining that there would only be minor visible impact at a benefit of increasing cell service in the town, the planning board approved the tower's application Tuesday night.

WESTERLO — The Westerlo Planning Board unanimously approved an application Tuesday night for the construction of a 120-foot cell tower on County Route 405 in Westerlo.

Tarpon Towers II is the company building the cell tower that will be leased by Verizon and will bring 4G cell service to customers in Westerlo, South Westerlo, Greenville, and Medusa.

The tower would stand 2.1 miles from another tower in South Westerlo, just under the 2.5 mile minimum established in the town zoning laws, but the law allows exceptions should no other location provide adequate cell service. An engineer contracted by Verizon stated at a previous meeting that the location was necessary due to its high elevation.

The tower was first proposed in an application made in October of last year, and follows months of multiple site tests and public hearings that have had arguments both for and against the tower. The first site test, using a weather balloon in November, was unsuccessful due to high winds, and was later found to be illegal under town law. The following test, conducted in March, used a hydraulic lift which was driven up the top of a mountain where the tower would be constructed. The test was delayed by two days, first because of a mix-up in schedules, and then because the vehicle attached to the lift became stuck in the mud.

At the Tuesday night meeting, planning board chairwoman Dorothy Verch read over the second and third parts of a state environmental quality review for the application, and went over in particular the visual impact statement. Using the hydraulic lift — which stretched to 125 feet in the air — the lift was visible in seven of the 22 locations photographed during the test, with the locations ranging from 800 to just under 14,000 feet from the lift. The farthest location the tower would be visible from is 9,400 feet away.

The tower would stand about 4,000 feet from the Restifo Preserve, a sanctuary owned by the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy on Maple Avenue in Westerlo. According to images taken at the preserve, the tower would be visible there, but the SEQRA suggested the impact would not be significant due to power lines already visible at the preserve and the fact that the tower would not obstruct views of significant landmarks, such as the Catskills.

Verch also went over a letter from town assessor Peter Hotaling, addressing concerns of decreased property values due to the cell tower. In the letter, Hotaling stated that he had not seen a significant decline in real estate prices since the installation of a cell tower in Westerlo in 2005.

At the public hearing, Westerlo resident Lorraine Pecylak raised concerns about the viewshed of the Restifo Preserve.

“It’s pristine,” she said. “People go there for the spectacular sunrises and sunsets.”

Pecylak argued a cell tower would spoil the view from the preserve, citing a town zoning law which states proposed facilities must not unreasonably impact scenic views. The law also states that the town government must consider factors such as the frequency and number of people viewing the vista, as well as the distance of the cell tower and whether it is screened by vegetation.

Pecylak has long been an opponent of the cell tower, having followed its application since it was proposed in October. She has also collected over 100 signatures and letters against the proposed tower, and submitted them at the last meeting.

She has told The Enterprise in the past that one of her main concerns is potential health effects of radio-frequency emissions from the tower, but, according to federal law, local governments can’t consider that when they are presented with cellular tower proposals.

A 1996 Federal Communications Commission law states that governing bodies cannot regulate wireless service facilities “on the basis of the environmental effects of radio frequency emissions to the extent that such facilities comply with the Commission's regulations concerning such emissions.” A 1993 New York State Appellate Court decision found that cellular service is considered a public utility.

Josh Silver, an attorney from the Murray Law Firm representing Verizon, said that the company’s engineers have ensured that the tower’s emissions will be tested three times a year by the FCC, and the results will be shared with the town. At a previous meeting, an engineer contracted by Verizon stated the emissions would not exceed FCC limits.

Ann Burnett, who lives on Route 405 in Westerlo, said that the tower would be visible from her kitchen window, as apparent from the site test. She also said the tower would decrease her property values and affect wildlife.

Burnett’s home was built in 1826, she said. The property has a full market value of $183,673 and a taxable value of $1,530, but she said those looking to buy a historic home would not want one with a clear view of cell tower.

Burnett also asked why the cell tower, which will be built on property owned by Douglas Hammond and Evelyn Trebilcock, could not be moved back behind the ridge so it would not be seen from her home. Silver stated this could not be done without increasing the height of the tower by three or four times.

Lee Sawyer, who lives on County Route 1 near the cell tower on Goodfellow Road in Westerlo, said she has experienced health and safety benefits firsthand from increased cell service. She described being with her young child in a broken-down car in a snowstorm in Westerlo and being unable to call for help. She also said her landline does not work well at home and, having some physical ailments, is relieved to have cell service in order to call for help.

Sawyer also said, while living in the country has many benefits, one of the things plaguing many rural areas is lack of access to things like cell service and the inability to get help.

“That’s what living in the country is, honey,” said Anne McCafferty, a few seats over.

“What did we do before?” asked another audience member, rhetorically.

“In the old days we didn’t have antibiotics, either,” responded Sawyer, who asked audience members to consider friends and family who could need help called in by a cell phone in an emergency.

Before voting, board members reflected on the past two public hearings, as well as what they felt the entirety of the town needs, including the use of cell reception by emergency services and the number of petition signers compared to the total population.

“So we have up to 200 people who really don’t want it,” said board member Edwin Stevens. “And we’re in a town of, like, 3,500 people,” he said, adding that it seemed the needs of the many would outweigh those of the few.

Board member Doyle Shaver Jr. emphasized that it would help to have increased cell reception in potential emergencies.

Board member Gerald Boone said that he had mixed feelings given that he knew people in affected areas but also acknowledged that cell phones have now become a necessity.

“We have to look for what the whole town needs,” noted Verch.

All five members — Stevens, Shaver, Boone, Verch, and Richard Kurylo — voted unanimously on two decisions: the first to allow Verch and the town attorney to finalize the permit for the tower, and to approve the permit application.

The construction of the tower awaits approval from the Albany County Department of Public Works for a culvert to access the road that will connect the tower’s location to County Route 405. The company will also have to present insurance along with their building permit.

According to Verch, the tower can have up to three other service providers utilize the tower upon completion, but will need to seek approval from the planning board.

At a Westerlo town board meeting earlier this month, Pecylak said she would consider bringing an Article 78 against the town should the tower be approved. The proceeding, named after Article 78 New York Civil Practice Laws and Rules, allows citizens to have court review of a government action or decision — monetary compensation is sometimes awarded. The applicable questions in such a proceeding are: if a lawful duty was not performed, whether the proceeding is not legal, whether a determination was made in violation of a law or affected by an error of law, or whether there is evidence against the decision.

Pecylak told the town board that she believed Verch had a conflict of interest because she expressed interest in receiving better cell service when the tower was first proposed in October.

Verch said after the vote on Tuesday night that she was not concerned, because she did not believe there would be reason to file an Article 78. She said she received no financial benefits from the tower being erected, and does not live near the tower. She also said no relatives of hers would benefit either.


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